Reports of the National Center for Science Education

In Praise of the Bravery of Biology Teachers

[Asked by Time magazine to provide a nomination for the 2007 Person of the Year, Frans de Waal wrote, "I nominate all the brave biology teachers of this nation who teach evolution despite the opposition they encounter. Without evolution, there is no biology; without biology, there is no medicine. It's as simple as that. These teachers arm their pupils with the knowledge they need, putting them on level footing with the rest of the world where evolutionary theory is uncontroversial." His words appeared in the November 26, 2007, issue of Time. NCSE asked him to amplify on his nomination, and we are pleased to publish his further comments here.]

I made this nomination and offered this quote, because I feel it is truly remarkable that so many teachers in this nation have the courage to go against the opinion of parents and sometimes school boards to defend science in the face of what I consider medieval ideas. The idea that the world was created a couple of thousand years ago is not any more believable than the idea that the cosmos revolves around the earth or that the earth is flat. To revamp this line of thinking by calling it "intelligent design" and giving it a scientific flavor doesn't change anything. The fact remains that 99%, or more, of my fellow biologists are convinced that evolution offers the most comprehensive and best theory, and that "intelligent design" is simply untestable, which is the worst thing scientists can say about any idea.

I admire the persistence of teachers to do what is right, to defend the evidence-based approach to the truth that is science, and to risk the wrath of people who believe that "theory" means "we don't know." In science, "theory" simply means that we have a way of finding out, which is far more than can be said of faith.

When I came to this country, one of the things that struck me right away is its irrational approach to biology. Mind you, this was twenty-five years ago, and at the time I just hoped it would blow over. It never did, however, and I have become pretty desperate about it. How come that all modern nations accept evolutionary theory and don't even consider it a point of debate, but not the US? Is it a small minority that thwarts progress, or is there a deep-down resistance? And if so, where does it come from?

One of the issues often brought up is the misunderstanding that if we were to believe that humans descended from "monkeys" and that God was not part of the process, this would imply the absence of a moral compass. Evolution would conflict, in this view, with a society based on values. People sometimes tell me, "to believe in evolution means I could rape my neighbor and it would be fine." I find this a strange idea, and I must say that in fact I don't very much like meeting people who are only stopped from raping their neighbor by their belief in God.

My personal belief is that nature is wonderful. For me, there is nothing negative about being part of nature. Moral rules, insofar as we have and obey them, have a basis in evolved human nature; hence in the animal kingdom as a whole. Nature does not prescribe how we should live, but it has given us the capacity for empathy and sympathy, and has produced cooperative tendencies, all of which we relied upon when we constructed a moral world.

Teachers should be free to communicate all of these exciting ideas about the role of biology and the evolution of the human species. Biology has so much to offer. It is in fact the most exciting discipline of our age, so let the teachers convey this excitement without being hampered by the outdated ideas of previous, uninformed eras.

By Frans de Waal
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.